Bes Ostracon

This limestone ostracon from the artisans village of Deir el-Medina (Egyptian: Set Ma’at = “The Place of Truth“), shows a beautifully intricate line drawing of the dwarf god Bes.

Bes Ostracon
Museo Egizio: S. 9541

The faint red pigmented lines, now orange, showcase the talent of the artists living within the worker’s village of Deir el-Medina. Likely a trial piece to be discarded, this simple ostracon causes one to imagine the artist once sat outside his humble home within the village, with this ostracon upon his knee as he delicately brought to life the deity Bes with his drawing tool. These finds from the village, therefore, are extremely important to anyone wanting to know more about the people of Ancient Egypt and their lives. These scraps of stone, with writings, drawings, it can be argued, bring us closer to the Ancient Egyptians, than the fine gold treasures of the tombs these artists were paid to work upon.

Deir el-Medina

Set Ma’at, known to us today as Deir el-Medina, was a workman’s village, which was state commissioned and owned. The artisans and architects who would design and build the tombs of the royals and elite would live there for many centuries with their families.

Deir el-Medina is therefore a treasure trove of knowledge for Egyptologists, as many of these everyday people occupying the village, were among the rare literate in society, and have left us with many ostracon detailing life in their community.

For more findings from Deir el-Medina, click here.


An ostracon (Greek: ὄστρακον ostrakon, plural ὄστρακα ostraka) is a piece of pottery, usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel. In an archaeological or epigraphical context, ostraca refer to sherds or even small pieces of stone that have writing scratched into them. Usually these are considered to have been broken off before the writing was added; ancient people used the cheap, plentiful, and durable broken pieces of pottery around them as a convenient medium to write on for a wide variety of purposes, mostly very short inscriptions, but in some cases very long.

The 91 ostraca found at Deir el-Medina provide a deeply compelling view into the inner workings of the New Kingdom. These ostraca have shown medical, and documentary records, some of which provide information on how water was provided, and how economic transactions were carried out. The extreme variety of information on ostraca found presents information that would be lost if it weren’t written down.


Bes, the Egyptian protector of infants and expectant mothers, is distinguished by his unusual iconography. The body is stocky, the legs are bowed and the face is similar to a mask, with a snarling mouth, protruding tongue, and the large swollen eyes marked by deep lines.

Bes ceremonial staff terminal.22nd Dynasty, c.943-720 B.C.
Bes ceremonial staff terminal
22nd Dynasty, c.943-720 B.C.
Abydos (?)
British Museum. EA26267

British Museum Curator: “Bes was the good-natured genie who drove away harmful forces at the moment of birth. The bound oryx symbolizes his dominion over them, which as a desert dwelling creature, was associated with the malevolent god Seth. However, he was connected not just with birth, but with the subsequent nurturing of the newborn infant, represented here by the baby Bes cradles and the food he offers it. The frog and papyrus were both symbolic of new life. The vervet monkey was associated with sexuality and fertility, especially in the context of family love. Visually this object unites the themes of protection at the moment of birth, care and nurturing of the newborn baby and perpetuation of the family. The hole in the papyrus shaft was obviously for the insertion of a handle of some kind. There are also holes in the headdress, ears and monkeys’ faces, which might have held attachments. Perhaps the object was actually shaken like a sistrum to make a noise and drive away evil forces at birth or during nursing.

Find more posts about Bes here.


Ostracon with a drawing of the god Bes
New Kingdom, dynasty, 18th-20th Dynasty, c. 1539–1076 B.C.
Deir el-Medina.
Acquired by E. Schiaparelli. Museo Egizio. S. 9541